FW de Klerk issues posthumous apology for pain of apartheid

South Africa’s last white president, FW de Klerk, who with Nelson Mandela oversaw the end of apartheid, has died in Cape Town aged 85, with his office issuing a prerecorded posthumous video apology for the country’s discriminatory system of white minority rule.

“I, without qualification, apologise for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa,” a gaunt De Klerk said in the recording.

He added his concern, however, over South Africa’s future, saying: “I’m deeply concerned about the undermining of many aspects of the constitution, which we perceive almost day to day.”

De Klerk’s death was announced by his foundation earlier on Thursday. “Former president FW de Klerk died peacefully at his home in Fresnaye earlier this morning following his struggle against mesothelioma cancer,” the FW de Klerk Foundation said in a statement.

De Klerk, who jointly won the Nobel peace prize with Mandela, leaves behind a complicated legacy in a country still scarred by the consequences of the brutal institutionalised system of white-minority rule that he helped usher out.

As well as ending apartheid, De Klerk, who as a minister had helped uphold white-minority rule, also helped dismantle South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme.

South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said he and the government were saddened, adding that De Klerk had played a “key role in ushering in democracy” in the country. Ramaphosa said: “He took the courageous decision [as president] to unban political parties, release political prisoners and enter into negotiations with the liberation movement amid severe pressure to the contrary from many in his political constituency.”

Mandela’s own foundation said in a separate statement that De Klerk would “for ever be linked to Nelson Mandela in the annals of South African history”.

“De Klerk’s legacy is a big one. It is also an uneven one, something South Africans are called to reckon with in this moment,” the Mandela Foundation said of his death.

A lawyer whose political inclinations were conservative, De Klerk was born in Johannesburg into an influential Afrikaner family. He went on to serve in the white-minority government of PW Botha as an MP in the National party.

While many white South Africans and senior anti-apartheid figures – including Archbishop Desmond Tutu – believed he would continue with Botha’s racist policies when in power, De Klerk, concerned about growing racial violence, including ethnic violence between Xhosa and Zulus encouraged by the state, began moving against the apartheid system.

Responding to the announcement of De Klerk’s death, the Desmond Tutu Foundation said “the former president occupied an historic but difficult space in South Africa”.

After becoming president in 1989, he allowed anti-apartheid protests, removed restrictions on some banned political parties and – like his predecessor – met secretly with Mandela.

The turning point came on 2 February 1990, five months after his election, when in a speech to parliament De Klerk announced that Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the African National Congress (ANC), would be released from jail, where he had been for 27 years. The announcement electrified a country that for decades had been scorned and placed under sanctions by much of the world for its brutal system of racial discrimination.

The speech marked the official end of segregation policies and the start of the negotiations that led to a constitutional democracy with equal rights for all South Africans.

Nine days later, in a historic moment that would reverberate around the globe, Mandela walked free from Victor Verster prison, although De Klerk continued to head South Africa’s white-minority government until 1994, when Mandela’s ANC swept to power in national elections.

De Klerk was conscious of the risks involved. “There is an element of uncertainty, obviously, with regard to everything which lies in the future,” he told reporters the day after his speech, and violence would continue throughout the transition period.

After the end of white-minority rule, he served as deputy president until 1996.

In later life, De Klerk was overshadowed by the towering figure of Mandela. “Sometimes, Mr De Klerk does not get the credit that he deserves,” Tutu told David Frost in an interview in 2012.

The relationship between De Klerk and Mandela, as the former admitted during his Nobel peace prize acceptance speech, could be fractious and was marked by bitter disagreements. Mandela accused De Klerk of allowing the killings of black South Africans during the political transition, while De Klerk said Mandela could be extremely stubborn and unreasonable.

While some white South African’s accused De Klerk of “giving the country away”, many black South Africans continued to view him with suspicion and his legacy would remain contested throughout his life, not least over accusations of involvement in state-sponsored atrocities committed on his watch, claims he always denied.

“If we had not changed in the manner we did,” De Klerk said in an interview with the Observer 11 years ago, “South Africa would be completely isolated. The majority of people in the world would be intent on overthrowing the government. Our economy would be nonexistent – we would not be exporting a single case of wine and South African planes would not be allowed to land anywhere. Internally, we would have the equivalent of civil war.”

De Klerk’s judgment on apartheid, too, was softer than many subsequently would have liked, with many inside the country seeing him as a symbol of the failure of white South Africa to acknowledge the full horrors of the system and to bring perpetrators to justice.

That was underlined last year in a controversy over a television interview, in which he was seen to be quibbling about whether the crimes of apartheid should be seen as “crimes against humanity”. He later expressed his regret for “the confusion, anger, and hurt” his remarks might have caused.

The FW de Klerk Foundation had announced in June that he had been diagnosed with a cancer that affects the lining of the lungs.

His death, perhaps inevitably, has been greeted with mixed responses. Julius Malema, the leader of the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters party, who had accused him of being “a murderer” during a visit to the country’s parliament last year, tweeted: “Thank you God,” followed by five dancing emojis.

Malema castigated media reports that said De Klerk was a former president of South Africa. “He is a former apartheid president,” said Malema in a tweet. Others on social media said De Klerk should not be accorded a state burial.

The former opposition Democratic Alliance party leader Tony Leon tweeted: “Farewell FW de Klerk. Like Mikhail Gorbachev, he reformed the system he inherited in 1990. And if he had not relinquished power in 1994, likely SA would be Syria or Venezuela today.”

De Klerk is survived by his wife, Elita, two children, Susan and Jan, and several grandchildren.

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